Correction to This Article
This article about Education Secretary Arne Duncan's recent bus tour misstated the name of a school he visited in Monroe, La. It is J.S. Clark Magnet Elementary School, not J.C. Clark Elementary.

Education Secretary Duncan hits the road for reform

By Nick Anderson
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 8:06 PM

MONROE, La. - The blue charter bus emblazoned with a federal logo, images of smiling teachers and slogans such as "Courage in the Classroom" pulls up to school after school. A tall man in a dress shirt and tie pops out into the Southern heat to deliver pep talks and autographed basketballs.

He is not running for office or plugging a candidate. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is on a campaign to cheer on America's teachers at a time when a sizeable number are skeptical of President Obama's education agenda.

Duncan faces a curious situation. In the past year and a half, he has dispensed tens of billions of dollars to sustain schools through fiscal crisis and fund ideas to improve. On Tuesday, he awarded nine states and the District of Columbia $3 billion for education innovation. As the school year starts, he will unload another $10 billion for education jobs.

Still, some teachers wonder whether a president who supports performance pay and staff shakeups in long-struggling schools is really on their side. So Duncan is cruising eight states - first in the South, then the Northeast beginning Monday - with a message: Yes, we are.

"Teachers have been disrespected, beaten down for a long time," Duncan said in an interview as his bus, stocked with pretzels, granola bars and apples, rolled through Arkansas. "We have to elevate the profession. We have to bring teaching back to a revered status."

Critics say Duncan has fed teachers' malaise by insisting they be judged in part on how much they raise test scores. When the Los Angeles Times published a story this month that pinpointed teachers with low "value-added" ratings, union leaders cried foul. Duncan said: "What's there to hide?"

Duncan later clarified that he was not advocating that newspapers publish such ratings. But, he said, he rejects "false dichotomies between supporting teachers and saying we need to get better in education."

Less than an hour after the tour began Thursday morning, a teacher challenged Duncan during a roundtable discussion in the library of historic Central High School in Little Rock. In 1957, federal troops cleared a path for nine African American students to enter the school over the resistance of white segregationists and the state government.

"The president campaigned on change," said Chris Dorer, 29, a social studies teacher. Referring to a 2002 law enacted under President George W. Bush, Dorer said: "I personally am very wary that we haven't done a whole lot to change No Child Left Behind. And testing isn't the way, Mr. Secretary. I'm especially disappointed when things are published in the newspaper."

Duncan replied that he wants "punitive" measures stripped from the law.

"We want to hold you accountable for high standards," he said, "but give you the room to get there."

He said that the Los Angeles events have unfolded in a way that is "not fair to teachers."

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